Erskine Caldwell

Active - 1953 - 1961  |   Born - Dec 17, 1903   |   Died - Apr 10, 1987   |   Genres - Drama, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Few writers were more respected and maligned in their own time than Erskine Caldwell. Renowned as the author of Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, both of which were among the early huge sellers in the new and burgeoning field of paperback books in the 1940s, he was also reviled in many circles for those same books and their risqué content. Born a minister's son in the Deep South, Caldwell was regarded in academic circles as a master chronicler of his home region, and by many in his home region as a traitor for his honest, unromanticized accounts of the poor in that region. The son of the Rev. Ira Sylvester Caldwell and the former Caroline Bell, Erskine Preston Caldwell was born in White Oak, Coweta County, GA, in 1903. His father's preaching and the family's moves to various congregations over the first decade and a half of his life gave him a unique opportunity to observe people of all kinds (though mostly poor and white) and the manner in which they lived -- what he later called the "antics and motivations" -- all of which became the focus of his subsequent writing career.

After attending Erskine College in South Carolina, Caldwell studied at the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania in the early '20s, and then he became a reporter for The Atlanta Journal and later a literary critic for that journal, The Houston Post, and The Charlotte Observer. He also wrote poetry, essays, humor, and short stories, and in 1929 published his first novel, The Bastard. A second novel followed a year later, but in his subsequent career Caldwell declined to include these in his official list of works, preferring to consider his 1931 short story collection, American Earth, as his first full-length published work. Even in those early stories, one can find the elements that would be most strongly identified with his best-known works, including the strange mix of realism and absurdity; the power relationships between men and women, the rich and the poor, and whites and blacks; and an appreciation for low comedy and savage violence.

In 1932, Caldwell's career caught fire with the publication of Tobacco Road. The publication a year later of the novel God's Little Acre only fanned the flames of his success and a good deal of notoriety as well, especially in his home region. The American South had been relatively cash-poor at least since the 18th century, but since Reconstruction, poverty had become a way of life for most of the population. Caldwell's two novels laid bare the shape, the depth, and even the smell of that poverty in a way that no prior literary work ever had; sections of both books were shocking, other parts were funny, and others were sad, while still others were downright titillating in their depiction of raw lust and sexuality. God's Little Acre, in particular, was the subject of a highly publicized obscenity trial that only spread its notoriety and appeal further, while Tobacco Road, adapted to the stage by James Kirkland, became one of the most successful non-musical shows in the history of American theater, running an extraordinary seven and a half years in its original Broadway production. It was also filmed by John Ford in 1941, and the movie did reasonably well. The combination of the movie's release and the book's reputation, coupled with advent of the era of cheap mass-market paperback volumes, led to its becoming a multi-million-copy bestseller.

Not all of the reaction to the two books was positive, however. Ever since the Civil War, Southern romanticists had tried to present a proud and relatively genteel side to the American South, a process which culminated with the 1936 publication of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Caldwell's Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, however, ran counter to that process, stripping away any romance about the South or Southerners -- his characters in Tobacco Road knew and cared nothing of lost plantations or an idyllic past to cling to; the men were too busy trying to find gold or a woman they could have, and trying to shove each other out of the way to achieve those goals; and the women were no better. Caldwell's years of observing his father's parishioners and the poor among whom he lived had provided him with a shockingly honest vision of his native region -- too honest for many of his southern compatriots, who would have preferred that he look elsewhere for stories to tell. As a result, he was possibly the most respected and resented Southern author of the early '30s. The immense paperback success of those two novels didn't take place until a decade after their publication, and the play Tobacco Road was a couple of years down the line as well. Meanwhile, Caldwell had to earn a living and decided to take advantage of the initial positive critical reception for the books by heading to Hollywood. He made the first of several attempts to succeed as a screenwriter during the 1930s, but did little more than earn a decent living and mark time. He had just one official screen credit from those forays to California, for the 1950 movie Volcano, during his prime years.

Much more substantial was his move into nonfiction authorship in the mid-'50s with the works Some American People and You Have Seen Their Faces, the latter in association with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who became Caldwell's second wife in 1939. His documentary writing was especially highly regarded at the time for incorporating the bracing excitement and richness of his fiction with the clear eye of a journalistic observer. During this period, he also expressed his displeasure with 20th Century Fox for its adaptation of Tobacco Road -- though successful, and representing the work of John Ford in his prime, the producers had insisted on adding a happy ending to the story, which Caldwell couldn't abide. By the mid-'40s, however, the paperback editions of Tobacco Road and God's Litttle Acre were out and spreading a particular outlook on Caldwell's work to millions of readers. His subsequent books, including Georgia Boy (1943), A House in the Uplands (1946), This Very Earth (1948), and Place Called Estherville (1949), plus any earlier titles that were reprinted, played off of the raunchy image of the two most famous novels, with lurid covers and suggestive text that often bore a resemblance to God's Little Acre. That book was finally brought to the screen in 1958 by writer/producer Philip Yordan and director Anthony Mann, in a brilliant movie adaptation.

None of Caldwell's books after the 1940s attracted anything like the enthusiastic readership of his early work, possibly as a result of his losing contact with his native Southern roots. In 1961, 20 years after Ford filmed Tobacco Road, Caldwell's novel Claudelle Inglish was brought to the screen, but by that time, Caldwell's moment had passed as a major popular cultural influence. In 1983, a film was made in Europe based on his first novel, entitled Le Batard. Caldwell passed away in 1987 at the age of 83 -- in 2002 his book The Sure Hand of God became a movie. John Ford's version of Tobacco Road hasn't been seen since the 1960s, but the film of God's Little Acre has been re-released in uncut form by Image Entertainment, and the book versions of each remain in print some seven decades after their original publication.